The film is deeper, fuller and more finely detailed than it probably needs to be, containing moments of pure magic and pure ingenuity. Look closely at the set design and notice how the signs and billboards comment on the action. Look closely at the simple, quiet moments in the film that are purely magical. My favorite comes early in the film when the heroine, Peppy Miller enters alone into George’s office. She finds his coat on a hanger. She slips her right arm into the empty left sleeve and wraps the arm around herself. George comes in and catches her. The two share a quiet romantic moment so tender and so touching that it reminds us why we go to the movies.
The film contains a dozen moments like that, which is why I put The Artist high on my ten best list, not the top, but very high. I was happy that the academy chose this film over some star vehicle with nowhere to go. In fact, most of this year's nominees fit that category. It was a mixed-bag of different themes, different ideas and different intentions. My favorite is probably as "outside the box" as you could get. If I thought getting a silent film made in the 21st century, then I can't imagine the uphill climb that it took Terrence Malick to get the greenlight for something like The Tree of Life. Here is a difficult, challenging film, with long spaces of quiet contemplation at which we aren't absolutely sure what is happening or what to think about it. It is one of those movies that you either love or hate, and even if you regard the film with awe, you walk away not really sure how to explain it.
The Tree of Life, for me, is nothing more than cinematic poetry, an elegy to the very soul of humanity and its evolution. It opens with a spectacular sequence that takes us through the entire evolution of the universe from the big bang through the age of dinosaurs and then shrinks it down to the memories of a boy growing up in Texas whose universe seemed to end at the edge of his driveway.
Director Terrence Malick encompasses both of these elements into a poetic film that is not always easily understood, but is never-the-less extraordinary. The center of the movie is seen through the eyes of a thoughtful architect named Jack (Sean Penn) who looks back over his years growing up in Texas in the 1950s. The movie follows him from the moment that he comes into the world up until he is about to enter his preteen years. We are with him from his infancy, through toddler-hood and on through his beginnings of his understandings of the world around him. Into that world also come two brothers, one of whom will tragically perish.
Unlike the opening of the film, which shows the expanse and evolution of the universe, Jack's world is tiny and is headed by two authority figures that seem to make up his entire world. One is his father (Brad Pitt), a stern and sometimes abusive disciplinarian, but not a one-dimensional bully. He was once an aspiring musician whose dreams withered away, forcing him to enter the corporate world. His approach with the boys is harsh, but is not unfeeling. The other is his mother (Jessica Chastain), a graceful, angelic figure who is an enabler to her husband and a refreshing emotional cushion to her put-upon sons. One of the fine touches of the film is that the adults are never given first names, they are only referred to as mother and father. There was a time when no one called an adult by their first name.
The movie sees Jack's emerging understanding of the world, but there is no firm narrative. This is a series of memories from Jack's childhood and they don't flow like a normal film would. He remembers the dinner table. He remembers following a girl home from school. He remembers his brothers running to the edge of the yard when daddy came home from a long business trip. Yet, the movie leaves a lot of things open. It doesn't point to the highlights, but rather lets us fill in the blanks.
One of the achievements of the film (and the reason I assumed it would win the Oscar for Best Film Editing) is the curious way that Malick and his editors present Jack’s memories. They understand that memory doesn’t flow in a pattern from beginning to end. Memories take place in fragments of time, in pieces of memory that jump around, back and forth. We see Jack in one place, then another, and back again like a skipping record. All through the film, the editing jumps from one thing to another. At times, we understand completely what we are looking at, at others we don’t. The moments when we don’t understand what is happening are the most contemplative because they allow us to fill in the blanks. This is never a movie that tells you how to feel.
What is most effective about The Tree of Life is the way those memories combine to create specific details of childhood in the backgrounds and the foregrounds. It remembers fireflies, wind chimes, a birdbath, grass on the front lawn. It remembers the decay of the siding on the house and dad's garden out back being eaten away by insects. It remembers boys rolling on the grass in their Sunday clothes. It remembers kids being at the cemetery and playing on the headstones. It remembers stalking around in the woods with the pellet gun and making mom squirm when you brought a reptile into the house. Those details are so beautifully observed and observed in a way that no other film in my memory has done. Yet, it also remembers the growing realization that the two strongest forces in our childhood universe - mom and dad - are human beings who are loving, but never-the-less, flawed.
Malick is the most reclusive of filmmakers. Not much is known of his past. He is so reclusive, in fact, that this is only the fifth film that he has directed in 40 years. My guess is that The Tree of Life is a collection of memories from his own upbringing in Texas. His film is very spare and not always easy to understand. I will confess that I am still unable to comprehend or understand the last ten minutes of the movie. Perhaps he is saying something profound that comes from his soul, I have no idea. Perhaps my next viewing will give me a better understanding. Malick purposely leaves much of the film unexplained, leaving us with deep discussions after-wards.
The Tree of Life as you can imagine, is not for everyone. It is, at times, baffling and other times just plain incomprehensible. I like that about it. I like that it leaves me with something to discover. Not since Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey has there been a film that considers how minuscule we are on this planet in relation to the rest of our cosmos, or considers how memory builds who we are and what we become.
I stated in my original review that I am going to become a student of this film, just as I have been with 2001, watching it again and again and trying to unlock its vast and baffling mysteries. This is a film that considers the enormity of our universe and relates it to the tiny spaces in our memories. There is no film like it, and I’ll wager that there never will be again.
My initial choice was Woody Harrelson for his devastating performance as a bad cop struggling with inner demons while trying to find some way to be a good father in Oren Moverman’s little-seen Rampart. I found the performance to be even better than his nominated work in The Messengers, yet I felt that the film itself came up a little short. While I admired the fearlessness of the script, I felt that the movie ground to a loose-ended conclusion that left me cold.
Curtis has horrible dreams, first of the dog attacking him and then another in which the house is blown over by the storm. He has very bizarre experiences. Standing on the back porch, the rain comes down harder and harder and lands on his hands in beads of a muddy oil-like substance. While at his job he is startled by repeated claps of thunder that his co-worker doesn't hear. At home he sees weird formations of birds that twist and turn like a swarm of locusts, almost as if they are gathering for an attack.
He reacts strongly to the dreams, beginning with the rash decision to move the family dog outside to a pen. He is puzzled by his experiences but he keeps them to himself, and doesn't bother telling Samantha. He becomes paranoid about his family's safety and decides on two courses of action. First, he visits a free clinic to talk to a counselor to get some feedback on what he is experiencing. His family history reveals a possible answer: his mother Sarah (Kathy Baker) suffers from paranoid schizophrenia that first hit her at about the same age that Curtis is now. Moving through the cold efficiency of the free clinic system, he gets some clues but no real answers. Second, and most devistatingly, he decides to rebuild the storm shelter out back, even taking out a very risky home improvement loan to pay for it (this is something else he keeps from Samantha). He risks his job by borrowing tools from work to get the job done and even recruits one of the men on his work detail to help him out. All of this, of course backfires and nearly brings his world crashing down. At a Lion's Club dinner one night, he knows that the townfolk are looking at him, and a confrontation causes him to come unglued in public.What is so fascinating about Curtis is that we can sense right away that he has been suffering long before the movie catches him. There is something going on in his mind, confusion at the things he sees and the terror that he feels. He seems spaced away from everyone else yet feels a compulsion to rescue his family from . . . something. He is a guy of average intelligence, who ventures out on his own to understand the problems that are driving him to the brink on insanity - his first step at understanding his problem is a trip to the local library.
The film follows Curtis so that we understand only what he understands. The things he is experiencing are known to us only as they are known to him. We know that eventually it will all come to a head and what is so amazing is the way in which the film turns and Curtis, in the third act, recieves help from Samantha that he never knew she could provide (I won't reveal what that is). What comes of the story is difficult to describe because it has several interpretations. I will only say that you are left to figure out the ending for yourself.
Michael Shannon is not your normal movie actor. There's something angular about him that seems a little off. He's too tall; he's not classically handsome; he's too insultated; his eyes don't look right; there's something going on in his head that isn't revealed outright. There is an intensity to his screen presence that doesn't comfort us. I mean that as a compliment because we are experiencing an age when you can't tell most actors apart. Shannon is a breath of fresh air. Curtis seems like a regular guy, though, one that you might not even notice in the course of your day. That angular quality makes his performance work simply because we are never sure where his journey is going to take him. Is it going to lead him to treatment, or to an institution?
Yet, for whatever reason, the academy felt that her role as Margaret Thatcher in Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady was the performance to break her 28 year losing streak, a victory that made her the third actor in five years to win an Oscar for playing a British leader, after Helen Mirren and Colin Firth. I can’t complain about the performance. Streep gives it her all, and sidesteps the trap of slipping by on mere impression. She is the best American actress of her generation and if the challenge of playing Margaret Thatcher was of the slightest importance, I'm glad it was she who got the chance. The best parts of her performance take place in the present day, as we see the elder Thatcher, well into her 80s, suffering from dementia. We see a woman who was once a towering politcal figure, reduced in her old age to fussing around the house after a few meager daily chores and struggling with a mind and a memory that are slipping away.
Her present day-to-day universe is a tapestry of a down-sized life. Alone after her son goes to prison, she lives in a small house with a small car, both of which are routinely vandalized (she moves into this house because it is close to the prison where she can visit him). Downsized too is her job, eeking out of living working at a travel agency, surrounded by people who were affected horribly by her son's crimes. Out in public, she plays a game of duck and dodge, trying to hide from parents of the children that Kevin murdered. It isn't easy. When he is caught in their line of sight, they react with violence.
It is hard to like Eva. It is easy to blame her for not communicating or getting professional help, but one wonders what she might have done. Here is a woman who has stepped into a situation that she clearly isn't equipped to handle. There's a globe-trotting life that seems perfect for her, but circumstances shrink her world down, down, down until she can hardly breath. Lynn Ramsey, the director, understands where Swinton's best gift lies - in her piercing eyes, which make her look like a frightened animal, a woman out of place and out of her element. The film moves back and forth through the hurricane of her memory and her emotions so that we are left to wonder what might have been done with a person better equipped to handle this difficult situation.
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